Angel in the details

What most journalists covering faith-based funding are missing

Issue: "Bush's tax-cut plan," March 10, 2001

Washington-Light streamed into the high-ceilinged offices on a surprisingly bright late February afternoon. Exactly one month into a new administration, President Bush's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives opened for business next door to the White House, and its staffers were padding around on clean carpets with new badges on chains around their necks.

The badge photos captured the deer-in-the-headlight look of driver's license art. That was appropriate since office head John DiIulio and his fellow bucks sensed that vehicles from many directions were intent on running them down. Pundits on the left were pressing Uncle Sam-I-am: Will you fund green eggs and ham? Is all this faith-based stuff a sham? Will some church get a new computer? Will that be OK with David Souter?

The left's play-it-both-ways argument was clever: Churches are so strong that they'll take over government, and so weak that government will take over them. Then The New York Times front-paged a new dimension with a scare story about Scientologists possibly tapping federal funds. Pat Robertson jumped at that bait: What if cultists want a grant? Should my taxes fund their rant?

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Non-stop flak-catching has its hazards. Mr. DiIulio, planning to hop a plane to give a speech in Florida, saw that when the spirit is willing the flesh may still be weak: A 103.5 degree fever made him forgo his travel south. But the next day he was back at his very difficult tightrope job, trying to pacify critics from both left and right, most of whom have a common concern: Will it be legal to talk about Christ in any program that receives federal support? Once again, Christ is salvation for some and a stumbling block for others.

Mr. DiIulio is trying to head off criticism by emphasizing his immediate priority of auditing federal agencies to find out which rules and practices hinder faith-based groups. Regulatory reform has priority over grant-making, and that is as it should be: The Clinton administration policy of stopping food deliveries and yanking back grants to evangelical homeless shelters needs rapid reversal.

The grant-making aspect is trickier, and the historical record suggests that it's as difficult to get a government grants program right as it is for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. Already, Mr. DiIulio has missed to the left at least twice, making anti-evangelizing comments on Jan. 29 and again on Feb. 26 (see p. 7) that pleased liberals but upset some of President Bush's core supporters. In response to WORLD inquiries, Mr. DiIulio's office did give WORLD a clarifying statement noting that programs involving "religious instruction or worship" will not be "redlined or disqualified so long as they're able to compartmentalize or segregate those components and show that no taxpayer funds support those activities."

The difficulty, of course, will arise in programs like those of Teen Challenge that have the leaven of Christ mixed all through the dough. But following the anti-redlining sentence came an intriguing paragraph that might provide a way out: "A superior solution, which the president has championed for years, is voucherizing." Provision of vouchers, which lets beneficiaries choose from among a variety of religious and secular programs, is "a much cleaner, tidier way to sidestep all these nettlesome church-state issues."

Superior, cleaner, tidierÉ very true. And maybe the difficulty in trying to please all sides will lead the administration to push for social service vouchers and for the tax code changes within the Bush plan, which includes expanded deductions for charitable contributions and incentives for states to create charity tax credits as well. That's a great approach, one that could grow to include federal income tax credits for poverty-fighting. That way, theists would not be compelled to support Scientology and non-Christians would not be compelled to support Christian efforts.

Some people demand that new initiatives work perfectly from the start, but the faith-based learning process has barely begun. Maybe the lesson being taught so far is that since America is still going through a culture war, an emphasis on taxpayer choice (thus credits) and beneficiary choice (thus vouchers) is the way to go. Mr. DiIulio will get better at walking the tightrope, but why not walk on solid ground by emphasizing the parts of President Bush's vision that could receive support from left, right, and center?

The press has an important role to play here. So far, the typical story about the faith-based initiative has skipped by phase one regulatory reform, missed the opportunity presented by tax credits and vouchers, and dwelt on grant-making. So far, reporters have emphasized potential conflict among faith-based advocates instead of delving into the nuances. That's not surprising, but just as the devil is in the details of most legislation, so in this case the angel is in the details-and it's vital to get things right.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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